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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XII. The Georgian Drama

§ 15. Thomas Morton and others

Thomas Morton, who was first known to the public by Columbus (1792), copied from Marmontel’s Les Incas, and who first achieved success with The Way to get Married (1796), modelled his plays on the accepted type. But, amid all the eighteenth century sentiment and stage claptrap of incriminating documents, mistaken identities and sudden recognitions, he has flashes of whimsicality which carry the reader forward to early Victorian humour. In The Way to get Married, Tangent first meets Julia (his destined bride) when, in a fit of high spirits, he has girded himself with an apron and jumped behind the counter, to serve Alspice’s customers. When Miss Sapless’s will is read, her disappointed relatives learn that Caustic is appointed trustee of the fortune to be bestowed on any young woman about to be married who may please this misogynist. Dick Dashall is not an aristocratic debauchee but a city speculator, who takes his first clerk out hunting and arranges his business deals “when the hounds are at fault!” In A Cure for the Heartache (1797), the two Rapids, father and son, engaged in the tailoring business, rouse genuine laughter by their erratic attempts to play the gentleman. In Speed the Plough dame Ashfield’s frequent allusions to Mrs. Grundy have made that name proverbial. Even in The School of Reform (1805), Lord Avondale’s sordid accomplice Tyke combines, with his innate felony, eccentricity and dry humour.

Holcroft, Mrs. Inchbald, Colman the younger and Morton by no means monopolised the attention of playgoers. They had to compete with innumerable farces, pantomimes and burlettas from the pens of Reynolds, O’Keeffe, Dibdin, Vaughan, Macnally, Cobb, Hoare and with many French and German adaptations, especially from Kotzebue. In 1789, Reynolds, to some extent, reverted to the examples of the classical school in The Dramatist. The plot is extravagantly impossible; but the minor characters are well conceived. Lord Scratch, the newly-made peer, intoxicated by his unaccustomed position; Ennui, who entertains the audience by boring the other characters, and incidentally, satirises the man of fashion by imitating his ways and, above all, Vapid, the dramatist, who disconcerts the company by his unforeseen and inopportune inspirations, all belong to legitimate comedy. O’Keeffe achieved the same quality of merit with Wild Oats (1791). The play shows how young Harry Thunder, in a passing fit of recklessness, runs away from Portsmouth academy and joins a company of strolling players. We might have expected an interesting picture of the vagrant actor’s life; but the prejudices of the public confined the chief action to genteel society. Only the character of Rover, the irrepressible and impecunious comedian, is conceived in the true comic spirit.